Monday 21 May 2012

It's National Vegetarian Week...

I'm not a vegetarian, and despite my fussiness about the meat I eat, I don't aspire to be one. I believe we humans are meant to eat meat and animal products - that it is an important part of healthy nutrition. (This account from a young vegan forced to realise that not everybody can survive on a vegan diet is fascinating and eye-opening.) I also believe the replenishment animals provide to the soil is vital to farming; that the healthiest way to produce food is in a polycultural system where animals and plants support and feed off each other, and that a wide variety of produce reduces the need for chemicals and treatments and encourages a healthier, more natural ecosystem where 'good' and 'bad' organisms are in balance.

But I also believe the amount of meat many are accustomed to eating these days is far too much. The amount we eat can be detrimental to our health, and too-often takes the place in our diets of other essentials such as vegetables. The amount we eat forces producers to farm animals intensively, which compromises animal welfare as well as the quality of the meat we eat. The amount we eat necessitates vast monocultures to feed the livestock, which deplete the soil, interfere with natural ecosystems and are detrimental to the planet. The amount we eat is ultimately unsustainable, and if we all ate less meat - perhaps just two or three times a week - the world would undoubtedly be a better place.

So this week, why not try a few meat-free recipes and cut down a little? I don't mean baked potatoes and beans, or macaroni cheese, or a mushroom pizza - vegetarian food can be far more exciting and nutritious than that; if you're stuck for ideas, try here or here for inspiration. Or check out Meat Free Monday - a campaign to get everyone eating meat-free at least once a week, with lots of recipes to tempt you to join in! (I was thinking of feeding my lot meat-free all week this week and seeing if they noticed, but planned badly and have half a pack of mince in my fridge to use up, and I promised I'd do steak one night... but five nights out of seven still ain't bad!)

And here's a simple offering to get your mouth watering; a beanburger recipe I've been working on recently (loosely based on a standard recipe that's all over the internet in various forms) which my family loves. (Not exciting enough for you? You haven't tasted it yet!) It's not quite seasonal right now, I confess, but summer round the corner means burgers on my mind. It's seriously tasty, family-friendly, and couldn't be much healthier either. Give it a try!

Mexican Beanburgers
(makes eight large burgers)
  • Finely chop a large onion, a green pepper and a red pepper, and fry gently in a teaspoon of olive or rapeseed oil.
  • Peel and chop a large carrot, and steam/boil in a little water until soft. 
  • When the onions are translucent and the peppers soft, add a small can sweetcorn (160g), a clove or two chopped garlic, 2 tsp ground cumin, 2 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste), 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 tsp dried coriander leaf, a tbsp lemon or lime juice, a good grinding of black pepper and a pinch or two of salt. Stir in and cook for a couple more minutes, then turn off the heat.
  • Mash the carrot (or puree in the food processor) and add it to the pan.
  • Drain and rinse two cans beans (I use one can cannellini, one can kidney), pulse half in the food processor until finely chopped, then add the rest and pulse until coarsely chopped for texture. Add to the pan.
  • Add 100g plain flour. Mix everything together really well.
  • Separate the mixture into eight balls and flatten them into patties about 2cm thick. It's messy, but stick with it!
  • Place on an oiled and floured baking tray, and bake at 200C for around 20 minutes, turning halfway through, until the burgers are lightly browned and firm.
  • Serve in bread rolls, with guacamole (or avocado), salsa (or sliced tomato), salad and a little cheese.

Friday 11 May 2012

Wild Garlic

As foraging goes, wild garlic has got to be one of the most desirable finds out there; it's plentiful, it's versatile, it's easy to recognise, it's garlicky... I particularly like the garlicky part... But in two springs of looking I've never found any in St Albans, so, except for a taster or two at Wild Food Nights, I had yet to experience wild garlic for myself - until recently.

Yep, we finally found some a short drive away, thanks to an 'insider' tip off! I thought he was having us on for a while - we scoured the area for ages and had nearly given up. And then we found it. Loads of it!

We picked a bagful, taking no more than one or two leaves per plant, and ended up with enough for several dishes!

Wild garlic is, obviously, similar to garlic in flavour, but with a grassy, fresh kinda feel. It's mild enough that you can almost use it as a leaf vegetable and throw loads in. And it keeps in the fridge for days!

First we used it to make chicken kievs - we pureed it with butter and seasoning, stuffed chicken breasts with it, coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs (must be in that order!) and baked. They didn't stay together too well... but they were delish. I was afraid the wild garlic would lose its flavour with the longish cooking time, but it didn't.

Next, a quick wild garlic pasta, with mushrooms, butter and a splash of wine and cream. I used 6-8 large leaves per person, chopped finely. Gorgeous!

And finally a feast of curry dishes: wild garlic rice, wild garlic pakoras from here (I recommend pre-cooking the potato!), wild garlic and chickpea salan - a buttery south-Asian curry - with some added green beans, and a cashew nut curry which I improvised with coconut milk and a little tomato puree - rich and filling and lovely! I made the rice by crackling a few mustard seeds in a little oil, stirring in the rinsed basmati rice, adding twice the volume of boiling water, cooking for just a few minutes, stirring in the chopped wild garlic, then covering tightly and leaving to stand off the heat until we were ready to eat - about 15 more minutes. I was a little concerned the whole dish would be too garlicky, but it wasn't - it was wonderful!

Wild garlic is flowering now (the flowers are edible too!) and the season will be over before long. I'm very tempted to buy some seeds and scatter them somewhere nearby (or maybe under the trees at the bottom of the garden) so I don't have so far to go next year! It's a little invasive but... that just means I have to eat more, right?

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Come on now, this is getting silly. I know we're in a drought situation (whatever that actually means) but we still need sunshine too, and the man on the telly said only winter rain could help us so your efforts are wasted. I swear most of my warm-season plants have just stopped growing - even the ones that didn't get smashed to bits by hail - and a few are just rotting in their pots, including the artichokes I spent good money buying. The slugs and snails are doing so well, in the meantime, that the remaining plants barely stand a chance, and after frost got my first early asparagus spears, the next wave has been so slow to grow without sunshine that most of it's been eaten before it's big enough to cut! Beans sown under fleece have not sprouted yet, and I strongly suspect they're rotten by now. There's a serious amount of weeding to do before I plant my maincrop potatoes and it's such a muddy job when the ground is practically waterlogged. I bought one of those weed wand thingies to burn the weeds but I can't do that when they're soaking wet, can I? Frankly, it's just depressing and uninspiring and motivation-crushing when the skies are grey and gloomy all day every day, and I'm not usually one to complain about the weather, but seriously, we don't usually have three (or is it four?) solid weeks of the same. Enough, okay?

Of course, I try to look on the bright side. The early potatoes and most of the herbs are doing well (except the rosemary which doesn't like to be wet), and the peppers and cucumbers in the relative warmth of the greenhouse are doing okay, if a little slowly.

The strawberries are pretty happy and green, with a few flowers appearing, and a couple I thought I'd lost to vine weevil have suddenly bounced back. The radishes, lettuces and mizuna are doing really well, too, although it's a constant battle keeping the slugs off them.

The tiny pots in which I've sown my brassicas are getting a constant watering where usually it'd be a fight to stop them drying out! And I have now harvested the first of my asparagus, even if it doesn't look very appetising.

Having battled with the allotment weeds for five full years now to virtually no avail, I've given up on digging and bought, as I said, a 'Weed Wand' to kill 'em all with. The environmental (and financial) cost of the gas canisters is not ideal, but as long as I'm economical with them and dispose of them properly, I think it's got to be better than either of the other options, which are using chemicals, or throwing in the towel. The cell-damage to the weeds is supposed to kill the whole plant, so I have high hopes that with this we'll finally be able to gain control, and it's going to be so much easier and less daunting than all that digging! Once the weeds are dry enough to start, anyway...

I'm also delighted to report the arrival of the year's most awaited seedling! After the hail killed all my ancho peppers - the ones I was most excited about growing - I sowed the last few seeds I had to replace them. And I waited... and I waited... and everything else I sowed came up but them. Finally, one has arrived! I hope more will still follow in the coming days.

At this time of year I'm usually starting to think about the likelihood of any further frosts and looking forward to planting things out, but everything's so far behind this year! So come on, rain. Enough!

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